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Hard case: MDC costs rise as population falls

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Long, sanitized hallways lead to a maze of units and pods at the Metropolitan Detention Center, where the inmates are temporary guests.

In one of the high-risk pods, inmates in red uniforms – isolated in their cells – howl at visitors. Accused cop killer Davon Lymon motions for a corrections officer to discuss something.

In a lower-risk pod, a man in an orange jumpsuit recognizes County Manager Julie Morgas Baca, who said she is a frequent visitor, and politely motions her over to his cell.

Female inmates take a class at the Metropolitan Detention Center

Female inmates take a class at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

In another pod, a group of women attend a class.

During a wide-ranging, hourslong interview and tour of the Metropolitan Detention Center with Journal editors and reporters last month, jail and county officials showed what life was like inside the massive facility west of Albuquerque and explained some of the changes and improvements they are trying to make on several fronts.

And they also offered a variety of reasons for one question that was posed: Why, if the county has had such a significant drop in inmate population in recent years, are the jail’s expenses going up?

The jail’s average daily population in 2012 was about 2,600 inmates, which was significantly overcrowded, according to the requirements of a decadeslong McClendon class action lawsuit against the jail.

Last month, the average daily population was roughly 1,200 inmates, according to jail statistics. The jail has beds for 2,200 inmates.

The declining jail population is due in part to reforms to the local criminal justice system, which aim to address the problem of people lingering in lockup while awaiting trial, then pleading guilty to crimes and being sentenced to time served.

The jail’s budget has gone up over the period of declining population. Expenditures in the 2012 fiscal year were $57 million, and expenditures in the 2017 fiscal year were more than $61 million, according to county annual reports.

That budget only includes money from the county’s general fund. In recent years, MDC has also received additional money from a behavioral health gross receipts tax put in place by the Bernalillo County Commission after the idea received overwhelming support from voters in the 2014 general election.

Jail officials said there’s a long list of reasons costs have gone up as the population dropped.

While many jail costs are fixed, services available to inmates, including psychiatric treatment and drug rehabilitation, have increased; guard training to curb excessive use-of-force incidents is up; understaffing at MDC means more overtime costs; and administrators have kept the number of inmates assigned to 64-person pods at about 40 inmates for safety reasons.

Metropolitan Detention Center Chief Greg Rees

Metropolitan Detention Center Chief Greg Rees

Improving psychiatric services at the jail is also one of the requirements of the McClendon case, and MDC Chief Greg Rees said the jail is receiving good marks from a court-appointed monitor overseeing the reform case.

“The mental health care and the medical care at this facility has not decreased,” said Jessie Phelps, the health services administrator of Correct Care Solutions, which provides care to inmates. “They continue to trend upward even with the population trending downward.”

Classifying inmates

Rees took over as the head of the jail in August. And he said that, even though the jail could hold many more inmates than it currently has, most of the jail remains open.

The jail is organized into five units. Each unit has eight pods, and each pod has 32 cells and can hold a maximum of 64 inmates.

But instead of filling all those pods to the max, then closing as many of them as possible, Rees said, only four pods are closed. The open pods have about 40 inmates each, so they aren’t filled to capacity.

Two inmates of the Metropolitan Detention Center are escorted in a hallway after getting into a fight

Two inmates of the Metropolitan Detention Center are escorted in a hallway after getting into a fight.

Rees said that population level serves two purposes. It provides a safer environment because the inmates are properly classified – meaning more dangerous inmates do not live with less dangerous ones and rival gang members are separated – and it allows the jail to assign just one corrections officer at a time to each pod.

“Having the inmates more spread out and classified properly, that’s important. That’s going to keep the place safe,” Rees said.

The recent jail tour showed how different classifications affected life inside the MDC.

High-risk inmates lived in a pod where they either stayed in a cell by themselves, or they shared a room with a fellow gang member and left their cells only in shifts.

Another pod was dedicated to recently arrested inmates who were receiving drug treatment medications.

Yet another pod was for inmates who were taking psychiatric medication.

And another pod was set aside for low-risk inmates. They were able to take courses of study and slept on bunk beds in open areas instead of in a cell.

Available courses of study included working toward a high school diploma from Gordon Bernell Charter School, addiction treatment, health and therapy.

Staffing problems

Rees said having fewer than the budgeted number of corrections officers can increase overtime and lead to burnout.

The jail is budgeted for 411 officers, but on a recent day only 314 were working. The officers work eight-hour shifts, but because of the understaffing it’s common for them to have to work four double shifts a week.

That means they often come to work not knowing how long their shifts will be.

Inmates rest in the Detox Unit at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Inmates rest in the Detox Unit at the Metropolitan Detention Center. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“We cannot leave a pod unsupervised, so we run into a lot of overtime,” Rees said.

The cost of overtime at MDC rose from about $6.4 million in 2015 to $7.7 million in 2017, according to county records.

The staffing shortage is also a likely reason MDC employees use more than twice as much Family Medical Leave Act time off than all other county employees, Rees said.

“The majority of the COs (corrections officers) are working four double shifts a week,” Rees said. “Does that cause health issues? Do people need a break from that? The answer is probably yes.”

Training

One case that highlights the need for more training involved Eric Allen, a sergeant at the jail.

Allen spent nearly two years on administrative leave for a use-of-force incident before he was indicted on battery charges late last year. The county is in the process of trying to fire him, though he is appealing.

Allen also came under fire when a video surfaced of him using force against a small female inmate in September 2015.

The county in recent years has ramped up its training and changed its use-of-force policy.

Tom Ruiz, a jail administrator, said efforts to change the jail culture, such as installing more cameras and improving inmate re-entry programs, are among reasons the amount it costs to run MDC has increased in recent years.

The county spent $1.7 million in training at the jail in 2017. Of that, about $700,000 was required as part of the decades-old McClendon lawsuit, aimed at improving jail conditions.

The previous use-of-force policy was based on what is called in law enforcement the “reactive control model.” That calls for officers to use different degrees of force or control based on a person’s behavior at a given time.

The new policy focuses on de-escalation, Ruiz said.

“The one we’re in now is a plan,” Ruiz said. “The other one was saying, if this happens, this is what you do. The new use of force (policy) is wait, stop, think about what you’re going to do before you do it. It’s philosophically a different approach.”

One aspect of the new training is to rely on contracted employees who offer psychiatric services when inmates are not compliant with corrections officers, instead of just relying on uniformed personnel.

“From a nonsecurity standpoint, it is pretty cool to have contract staff and security work together as a team to not use force,” said Stacey Goldstein-Dwyer of Correct Care Solutions.

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